“Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal”
Author: Yuval Taylor
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
This study of the relationship of African American writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes is, happily, much more about friendship than betrayal.
The “betrayal” part is an organizing dramatic device, used especially well in Scott Donaldson’s “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship.” It combines a dual biography with a focus on a particular period of time.
As Taylor explains, these two writers met on May 1, 1925 at a giant banquet and awards ceremony sponsored by “Opportunity Magazine,” in New York City. It was, he tells us, the “largest gathering of African American writers in history,” with Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and actor Paul Robeson in attendance.
Also present were Eugene O’Neill, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott and many other established white writers and thinkers.
It may be argued that the Harlem Renaissance was born on that evening. Certainly the relationship between Hughes and Hurston, who won two literary prizes and two Honorable Mentions each, began in that room.
They would soon begin a friendship that would endure for a considerable length of time.
The two had a lot in common. At that point both believed the power of black writing lay not in any imitation of white language or themes but in an “abandonment” of the literary. At one time, Hughes threw all of his books except for “Leaves of Grass” into the ocean. Taylor says “Langston was declaring his allegiance to the preliterate, or as his contemporaries put it—the “primitive”—and turning his back on the Enlightenment idea of liberation through literacy.” For him, liberation was to be found elsewhere and his poems were in fact meant to be heard, not read.
They both sought the “preliterate,” the “primitive”: the African roots of black American culture, examining the Blues, Brazilian musical rhythms, African carvings and masks, Eskimo art and Aboriginal Australian poetry. They employed the “Negro idiom,” language clearly understood by the average person.
This exploration of black culture was not to be any kind of attack on white culture.
Hurston’s masterpiece, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” takes place mainly in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town, and whites play no real part in the action. Although Hughes did write a number of social protest poems, Huston rarely wrote in anger, saying: “We do not hate white people. We certainly have no desire to kill off the pink-toed rascals.” “I am not tragically colored…I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature has given them a low-down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.”
For this she was soundly condemned by most black critics, especially W.E.B. Dubois who declared “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”
The African-American intelligentsia has never been monolithic, in the ’20s or now.
Both Hughes and Hurston were taken up by the rich white philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, a kind of Medici of Park Avenue, and, along with many other black artists, given stipends to do work in “primitivism,” which she believed to be “uncorrupted” and thought would “energize and renew” American civilization. “Controversially,” Taylor writes, “they celebrated Negroes as almost elemental beings, in touch with instincts white culture had lost sight of.”
Mason’s recipients received either $150.00 or $200.00 a month, which in the Depression was a good deal of money. Over time Mason would give away almost a million in 2019 dollars. This is one of the oddest arrangements imaginable. Mason loved her literary wards but also demanded obedience and obsequiousness.
In the case of Hurston, Mason was to see the work—mainly folklore—first and have control over what was published. Hughes also got a stipend, but was freer to write and publish as he chose.
They called her “godmother”– really meaning “goddess.” Zora believed Mason had psychic powers and could “read her mind from thousands of miles away….”
Since Zora was a mystic and had visions herself, this is consistent.
Hughes, who had been doing research of his own in the American South, accompanied Hurston on one of her extended auto trips through the South, including New Orleans, Mobile, Tuskegee, and Huntsville, collecting folklore, songs and stories.
They spent considerable time in Alabama and Hurston may have visited her birthplace Notasulga, although she and her family moved to Florida when she was only three, and in interviews and autobiographical writings, she identified as a Floridian, never an Alabamian.
On other trips, Zora spent time in Africatown, outside Mobile, interviewing Cudjo Lewis, believed to be the last living connection between Africa and America, brought on the “Clotilda,” in 1859, illegally, 50 years after the slave trade had been outlawed. Those interviews were described in an article by Zora and then would be the basis for her book Barracoon, completed in 1931 but published only last year.
In 1928, she also immersed herself in Voodoo or Hoodoo in New Orleans, finally undergoing elaborate initiation ceremonies. There were extensive rituals—baths, candles, prayers—culminating in lying down “on a sofa with her navel touching a snakeskin, in the nude, without food, for sixty-nine hours straight.” The ceremonies, according to her biographer Robert Hemenway, “marked her for the rest of her life.”
Over time, both fell out with Mason, and violently with one another. In about 1931, in Cleveland, they fought over who wrote which parts of their collaborative drama “Mule Bone,” and how the credit and profits were to be assigned.
They also fought, perhaps, over Louise Thurman, their attractive typist. If the problem was romantic jealousy, it wasn’t simple. Zora and Langston were both passionate people and both dealt with homosexual longings. Was Zora jealous of the attention Langston was giving Thurman, or did she have feelings for both Langston and Louise? The vectors pointed in every direction.
Those who have not read biographies of Hughes or Hurston, two of the most unusual characters in American literary history, will profit most from this book, but the passages on the Harlem Renaissance, the debates among black thinkers and the singular “godmother” Charlotte Mason offer entertainment and enlightenment to anyone.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.